If you had been in the room that day…
If you had been in the room crowded with neighbors, you would have felt the spirit of unreasonable joy. This was not any old bris! If you had been there you would know you were beholding a miracle.
See Elizabeth wanted to name the baby John, but nobody in their family’s named John! Somebody thought to ask Zechariah, and he wrote on the tablet: His name is John. That’s when Elizabeth handed him the baby. If you had been in the room that day, you would have seen Zechariah look into his baby’s eyes and get filled with the Holy Spirit.
Then Zechariah began to sing.
After ten months of silence, blessing poured out of his mouth. Zechariah prophesied that God would come through after all. God would raise up a savior for the people. God would show the mercy promised to our ancestors. Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!
Zechariah looked at the baby he was holding, and the baby looked at him, and John heard his papa sing: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High. You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…”
If you had been in the room, you would know you were beholding a miracle. For one thing, Zechariah got his voice back. For another thing, he broke into singing. The mercy of God will save the people! And this eight-day-old baby? He will become a prophet who makes a way for the Word of God.
Now Zechariah and Elizabeth are very old. Before Elizabeth got pregnant, they carried between them a rupture of spirit. We know two things. First, Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous before God, keeping all of the commandments. Both of them had impeccable credentials! Zechariah was a priest in the order of Abijah. Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. But the second thing was that Elizabeth was barren. In their world, it was believed that barrenness was a sign of God withholding blessing.
You can hear how this is a problem. It doesn’t add up! There’s no way a person can be righteous and barren. Something is wrong. Elizabeth and Zechariah were grieving for the baby they could not have. Inside the grief, there was guilt. Surely this must be my fault! Inside the guilt lives the chilling realization that no one else can possibly understand what you’re feeling.
Elizabeth’s friends used to tell her, “Oh honey, don’t worry. Any day now it’ll happen, you’ll see!” She heard this every time they’d get together! The only thing more painful than hearing this constantly was the day they stopped saying it. Now anytime a visitor innocently asked Elizabeth, How many children? her friends stood there in silence.
One day, Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer the incense. The innermost sanctuary was holy ground. If Zechariah went in there, he was sure to brush up against the divine. And sure enough, this is precisely where the angel Gabriel found him.“Do not be afraid!” said the angel professionally. “Your prayer was heard. Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John!”
Now you might remember, something similar happened to Abraham and Sarah. But then, when the angel announced that she would get pregnant, Sarah laughed at God! Not Zechariah. All he did was ask Gabriel: “How will I know this is true?” And that did it! Gabriel thought Zechariah didn’t believe him and took offense! With cosmic angel power, he zapped Zechariah rendering him unable to speak.
Here Zechariah just received the best news of his whole life, and he can’t even say it. It would be wrong for us to miss the humor; there’s definitely something hilarious about this turn of events. But it might also be a mistake to miss the grief. He can’t even whisper to Elizabeth I love you.
Inside the grief, there is guilt. You know Zechariah was blaming himself for questioning Gabriel! Inside the guilt is the chilling realization that no one else can possibly understand. Zechariah couldn’t explain this if he wanted to.
Inside the grief, there’s the guilt. Inside the guilt, there’s the horrifying discovery that no one else could understand how you’re feeling —like it’s your job to make your pain make sense to everyone else. It’s the old song: Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow.
Something to notice about the holiday season is it comes at us shimmering with the invitation to get into the Christmas spirit. The cheery songs will fill up your car. Glitter will get all over everything you own. If you find that you are sparkling with the joy of Christmas, God’s blessing upon you.
But if you’re not… If you are crying all over Christmas, that does not mean you’re the Grinch, or Scrooge, or Krampus, or Belsnickel, or any villain. If you are crying at Christmas, that means you are human. Here God comes into the world as a human being, a baby in a manger, word made flesh, grace upon grace. You can believe God is crying on Christmas too.
The first thing to know about grieving is that your sorrow is allowed. Even at Christmas.
The second thing to know is, after the vivid intensity of grief, after the sobbing and the rage, the silence comes in, and it comes to stay. This is the Saturday after Good Friday. Heaven and earth and the LORD our God have gone quiet. This is the month after the funeral when everybody has gone home and here you are. When evening fills the house, the quiet is relentless. The silence seeps in at the foundation, and when it does, it’s important to know what it is. It might not be what it seems.
Inside the grief is the guilt. You’ll try to figure out how this is your fault when it is not your fault. Inside the guilt is the dread-drenched prospect that you’re going to have to explain this to everybody else. You’re going to have to get them to believe you. And if this is what you’re up against, it’s no wonder the silence is a problem. It seems to validate our worst fear. Only thing is, what if it’s doing something else…
Maybe the silence is not a sign of rejection. Maybe it’s not a judgement from the universe ruling that we deserve to be alone, or a curse from an offended angel. The silence can feel so cruel. But what if there’s something more going on…
There’s a famous black and white picture sometimes called Rubin’s Vase and sometimes called Rubin’s Face. It’s one picture with two images. Some will say it’s a picture of two black faces looking at each other against a white background. Some will say it’s a picture of an ornately-carved white vase set against a black background. Both groups are right. With these dueling images, the picture teaches us that there is no such thing as insignificant background. What we interpret as background is actually its own image. The faces make possible the vase; the vase makes possible the faces.
Same thing with silence. Instead of imposed nothingness, what if the silence is precisely where the Holy Spirit is at work…. It’s not nothing.
Silence is the presence of love listening to your sorrow.
It’s God sitting beside you inclining her ear.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus… And maybe everybody. Nobody knows your own pain, all of it, but everybody knows something of it because everybody knows pain. We have more in common than we know.
If we come upon someone who’s hurting, one the best things we can do is believe their pain without requiring them to convince us. It’s not their job to make their sorrow make sense to us; sorrow is sorrow and we get it. One of the best things we can do is sit down beside them in the silence, and hold it tenderly, and join our listening with theirs. If you try this, you will find yourself on holy ground.
God works in the dark and the quiet. All through the Gospel of Luke, people get filled by the Holy Spirit. Sure, it gets young women pregnant and old women too. The Spirit makes young men see visions and old men dream dreams. It gets women prophesying. It gets men breaking into song. But here’s the truth. Before there can be any singing, there is breath. The Holy Spirit is not just the song; he’s the breath that makes possible the song. The miracle isn’t just the singing that shatters the sorrow. It’s that we get to hear it.
If you had been in the room that day…
If only you and I had been in the crowd of neighbors waiting for the bris to begin. Elizabeth handed the baby to Zechariah, and Zechariah looked at him, and the baby looked at his papa, and the blessing came pouring out of Zechariah! There’s no missing the miracle. For one thing, Zechariah got his voice back and the first thing he said was the blessing; the next thing he said was that the mercy of God would save the people. For another thing, when Zechariah started singing, the room turned silent. Everybody could hear him.
At first, we just meant to listen —because I mean, how could you not! But the more we listened, the more we began to believe him, the more we began to hear his blessing coming out of our own mouths. Even the grieving ones are singing: Blessed are you who mourn, your sorrow is about to turn, and you’ll be there to hear it. Your silent night will give way to a sky full of Alleluias. Alleluia coming from the breath of the Spirit! Alleluia in the conspiring of stars and angels! And we will be there.
We will hear the Alleluias all the way until the breaking of the mourning. Amen.